'Tis the Season for Topigetical Sermons
This season brings with it discussions and debates among Reformed believers genuinely concerned about how best to honor the Lord in the midst of what can feel like sensationalistic, materialistic mayhem rooted more deeply in paganism than sentimentality-sated Christians care to acknowledge (On the idea that Christmas is plagiarized paganism, see this myth-busting article). And beyond whether or not to observe Christmas privately or perhaps merely as a civic holiday, no Christian, especially those in church leadership, should take lightly the question of what we do in corporate public worship on the Lord’s Day - especially this year, as Christmas actually falls on the Lord's Day! Popularly ignored issues at play here are biblical essentials such as the second commandment (God is to be worshiped only on his terms) and its flipside, the liberty of the Christian conscience.
Smaller Reformed denominations and churches are often viewed as repressive on that latter principle especially, and the idea that a church would not conduct worship significantly reflective of (or upon) Christmas can seem like an especially harsh, unreasonable form of that repression. But there’s a deep irony to that criticism. The motive for what those smaller churches do and don’t do is the very Christian liberty that their practices, on the surface, seem to suppress.
Christian liberty applied to corporate worship dictates that church leadership has no right to impose upon worshipers something which the Lord himself does not command. Every worshiper should know that however imperfectly worship is led and conducted, church leadership has worked hard to ensure that everything in the service is done to draw the worshiper as close to the Lord Jesus as possible, eliminating distractions and especially doctrinal deviations which would prevent that close communion with the true and living Christ. So while we should say a hearty “Bah, humbug” to rancorous debates and caustic criticism of other Christians, the issues which surface during Christmas season among Reformed believers are in fact vitally important to the health, well-being and biblical faithfulness of Christ’s church, her individual congregational representations, each member of the body and the precious visitors who show up perhaps only because of this particular season.
For the remainder of this piece, I’d like to humbly weigh in on what is perhaps the most pressing question (or at least the most practical one) among Christmas-related concerns: To what degree should the season affect what happens in worship on the Lord’s Day? Let me respectfully make the case that the answer of “Not to any degree; zero” is too cold. And let’s focus in particular on the preaching.
There are some preachers who avoid “Christmas sermons” for reasons related to what’s mentioned above. Some refuse during this season to deviate from their preaching series even for an exegetical sermon based on the topic of the incarnation. The reasoning I’ve heard is that because Scripture doesn’t call us to a holiday commemorating Christ’s birth, the season shouldn’t impact the preaching schedule. A related argument says that faithful preaching, wherever in Scripture the preacher happens to be, will feed the flock satisfactorily, in season and out. No need to change the sermon series based on a questionable element of the calendar.
It’s true that Scripture does not call us to a holiday celebrating Christ’s birth, so I’m sympathetic to the argument that such shouldn’t be imposed upon the worship service. It is sadly and instructively ironic that the one holy day Scripture does command Christians to observe, the Lord’s Day, seems by and large to be the least loved and most often neglected (and even resented) “holiday” on the Christian calendar. However, I wonder if the refusal to deviate from the scheduled sermon series is as much a function of Sola-Scriptura steadfastness, of confidence in the constant applicability of all parts of the canon, as the practitioners of this persistence intend.
The argument that it’s good to preach about what people are talking about is sometimes dismissed because it’s viewed as a capitulation, if not a compromise, to pop culture or the church calendar. But the minister making such an argument needs to ask himself: Is there ever any reason at all he’d deviate from the sermon series to preach a topical sermon? Or even perhaps what my friends in the ministry call a “topigetical” sermon? (That’s an exegetical sermon demonstrating what a particular passage contributes to the whole counsel of God on a given topic). Perhaps such ministers are out there, but I don’t know of any who’d answer, “Absolutely not; I will never for any reason deviate from the scheduled exegetical walkthroughs of biblical books.” Okay. Kudos for consistency. But if the answer is, “Only when we’re observing the sacraments, or in very, very rare circumstances,” then I’d respond, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!”
In the latter case, the minister must ask himself what circumstances could justify a departure from the scheduled sermon series. Would a local or national event of life-altering magnitude merit a topigetical sermon which helps reeling congregants see the event through Scriptural lenses? Perhaps something tragic and of September 11th, 2001-sized significance? If so, then what about preaching topigetically to address a joyous apocalyptic event of global proportions which not only alters but categorizes, defines and becomes the animating principle of created reality, human history and life itself? Could that justify a change in the preaching schedule? The birth of God-incarnate is, of course, all that and more.
While we might address a September 11th-sized event in its immediate aftermath but avoid preaching about it annually, and while Christ's birth was two millennia ago, doesn’t the entry of the eternal God into time, space, history, and human flesh and his birth from a virgin's womb merit an annual sermon (if not more!), and deserve it regardless of whether or not people are mindful of such things during a particular festive season? And if so, why not preach it during the time when people are actually thinking about such things? And especially given that some folks may not visit any church again until Easter (we’ll not address that celebration; one topic at a time!), why not proclaim to them Scripture’s teaching regarding an historical event which has been mythologized into meaninglessness, an event which cannot possibly be told too often nor its significance ever in a thousand sermons be overstated? Are the proclamation of this event and the multiplied ministry opportunities of the season not together worth just one annual deviation from the sermon series?
If the answer is still "no" because we don’t want our sermon series to be steered by the calendar, we might need to ask whether our refusal to preach the coming of Christ into the world during a certain stretch of the calendar isn’t in itself an ironic capitulation to that calendar. We might end up in the absurd position of saying that the only time we won’t preach our Savior’s birth is when people are thinking about it the most. Either way, our preaching is being determined by popular culture. Might as well err on the side of telling people about the arrival of God into the world.
In general, all of us ministers need to admit the subjectivity inevitably involved in our preaching principles and plans. Even if we’re committed to “one verse at a time” expository preaching, our decisions regarding how many verses we cover, how long the sermon series will go, which truths in the inexhaustible treasure trove that is sacred writ will gain greater emphasis in our preaching than the (many) others we must pay less attention to or pass by altogether – all these and other such decisions are subjective, not Scripturally mandated. Nor, for that matter, is the decision of what book we'll preach for our series. We trust God’s good providence in blessing worshipers with the truth God wants them to hear on any given Lord’s Day, wherever we are in Scripture. Yet does that trust in God’s arrangement of all things for his glory not also apply to the presence of pressing concerns upon people’s hearts during life’s extraordinary circumstances and seasons?
And lastly, is it not a blessing for worshipers and perhaps especially for unbelieving visitors to our churches to know that the word(s) of our Lord speak directly to those matters of deep personal concern and broad cultural import? Pastors know that especially valuable, on-time ministry sometimes comes when we were planning to do something else entirely. That seems to be Jude's motivation in writing his biblical book. Suddenly pressing concerns among his hearers led him to write what he did despite apparent plans to write more generally and broadly about our salvation in Christ. If this kind of rare departure from planned teaching is part of the very composition of God’s word, why should we balk at its becoming an occasional part of preaching that word?
It’s never a bad time to preach the good news of our Savior’s arrival in the world. I’d humbly encourage my fellow preachers to, in a manner entirely consistent with the Lord’s dictates regarding corporate public worship, proclaim this blessed truth frequently, faithfully, and especially when people are providentially prepared to be there and, Lord willing, to truly listen to the truth. Coming close to people’s concerns with the word of God is one more beautiful way to demonstrate the truth of Immanuel, God with us.
(This is an updated version of a prior post.)